Something to Do with the Arabs by John Duncan Talbird

Two Long Island Railroad cops, Wayne and Thomas, stood on the platform between trains at the Flatbush Avenue station in Brooklyn, joking, hawking and spitting onto the tracks, checking time and yawning, wiping sweaty faces with paper napkins from the nearby snack stand. It was nearly nine am, the end of a long and mostly uneventful shift—ejected homeless, a couple unruly drunks, a purse snatch the highlight.

A young man, late teens, early twenties, Egyptian or maybe Indian, walked past, heading toward the front of the Hempstead train. He came back, paused, went toward the back. When he returned a third time, lingered, Wayne was about to ask him what train he was looking for (though usually by this time in the morning he had little patience with lost passengers, especially immigrants who probably barely spoke the language). Just as Wayne opened his mouth, the kid said, “Officers?”

Thomas seemed to notice him for the first time, widened his eyes like he was coming awake. “Yeah?”

“I must need to report something I’m afraid.” The kid’s accent was thick, though his English good, if a little awkward. His tongue appeared to be tasting the strange vowels of this unfamiliar language. “I have arrived in your country…just…” He cleared his throat, seemed to be struggling with shyness or some other discomfort.

Wayne laughed. “Spit it out, kid.” He raised his watch. “We’re off in ten minutes and I’m out of here whether you’re done or not.”

The young man seemed frightened and his words came faster. “I just arrived here two weeks ago. I am living with someone—not my friend, a friend of my cousin—in the Fort Greene neighborhood.” He pointed in the direction of Park Slope, actually, but neither cop corrected him; it was common to lose direction underground, orientation only coming to Wayne and Thomas after working for months down here. “The man I am living with—Maskini is his name—I believe he is crazy. He is building a bomb…”

“What?” both cops said, each taking a step toward the kid.

“Yes,” the young man said, stepping back, raising his hands as if in defense. His words came faster: “He claims he will blow up a train which is why I must speak to you. I do not think America is the devil. I just want to work, but Maskini says …”

“Wait-a-second,” Thomas said, putting a hand on the young man’s shoulder. “Slow down, tell me your name.”

“Amen.”

Thomas opened a little pad, scribbled a pen across the paper to get ink. “Okay, Mr. Amen, give me your address…”

Wayne was speaking into the radio attached to his shoulder. Soon, other cops joined them on the platform as trains arrived and left. Passengers slowed to watch, spoke amongst themselves. The cops paid little attention as foot traffic was mostly steady. Although they couldn’t hear this, above ground, sirens were heading toward a nearby brownstone in Fort Greene.

 

John MacDonald, an English professor at a Brooklyn four-year CUNY college  slouched in his home office reading the latest email from his chair, Dr. Barak Underberg:

 

John:

I understand your ambivalence toward quantitative research, but I think, in light of my dealings with the chairs in the more “rationalist” depts. and esp. the school’s president  (most esp. his constant sprinkling of the term “QUANTITATIVE pedagogical research” into recent speeches) that you should reconsider. I.e. your publications have been spotty at best and it seems more and more doubtful as you approach the tenure decision (NEXT YEAR!), that your dissertation will make it into book form (unless you self-publish, J).

 

Your professional identity is in jeopardy. I hate to see this, esp. as the college has never had an ass. prof earn the Outstanding Teacher award (two years in a row!). I truly believe I could convince my colleagues to grant you tenure—but only if you demonstrate a marked shift in your research priorities. Granted, I’m a medievalist and shouldn’t lecture you on Comp/Rhet, but be honest: Isn’t that field already glutted with the touchy-feely discourse of tree-huggers “reflecting” on their classroom practice? Do you really have anything to contribute to that limited (and problematic) conversation? Come into the light, John. Your colleagues want information they can trust, not conjectures and “riffs.”

 

Your friend,

Barak.

 

This was the third time John had read the email and, although he had an overwhelming urge to delete it, didn’t. He imagined he would reread it three or more times before the morning was over. It depressed him and he could only stare out the window at the humid, drizzly day, the sound of honking cars and voices on the sidewalk just background noise to his restive mind.

There was the wail of sirens in the distance, getting closer, inexorably moving in his direction, to his block—no, wait, outside his apartment. He peered down into the street even as the downstairs door burst open and feet pounded into the foyer. Incomprehensible voices pushed against each other in the closed space, the wooden stairs reverberating, feet descending to the basement where seven or eight Middle Easterners shared a two-bedroom apartment.

He leaned out into the hallway. The woman in the opposite apartment, Mrs. Valuckus, already stood there in housecoat and slippers. “What’s going on?” he whispered.

“I don’t know, young man.” She shrugged. “Something to do with the Arabs.”

He shook his head, frowning. Ever since 1993 and that pathetic attempt at bombing the World Trade Center, the police had cracked down on the immigrant population in New York, especially those who might have Middle Eastern roots. What are we living in, John thought, a fascist state? There was yelling—“Open up! Police!”—the thump, and then splintering, of thick wood, and more yelling: “Get down on the floor! Don’t move!” and the crack of something that took a moment for the brain to identify as gunfire. Mrs. Valuckus put a shaking hand over her mouth, eyes wet with age or tears. John’s hand was on the doorknob. He wanted to go back into the apartment, lock the door, but was afraid of appearing cowardly to his elderly neighbor.

 

Abida lay on the floor, covering his head with his hands. The air smelled of sulphur and beneath that the scent of the rice he had been cooking before all the chaos burning on the stove. Police officers were shouting, speaking too loudly and quickly for Abida to follow much of what they said in his rudimentary English. “Stay still!” he understood. “Stay the fuck still!” someone was yelling at him, or maybe at one of the other fellows.

Abida moved his arm slowly, only slightly, so that he could see his watch. He would be late for his job washing dishes. This would be the third time and he knew that he would be fired. But then he stopped thinking of that because an officer had grabbed his wrists and twisted them roughly behind him. He felt a sharp pop in his shoulder and tasted blood. He rested his cheek on the dirty carpet trying to take deep breaths, the panic a twisting, clawing creature in his chest. Beneath the coffee table next to where he lay, he could see Maskini in his jeans and Coca-cola T-shirt, managing an inhuman stillness. One of the officers, gun drawn, bent close, pressed a finger to the side of his neck.

 

Later—after the building had been evacuated—three members of the bomb squad entered the apartment to defuse the explosive device. Fifteen minutes later, the officer in charge, Sgt. Turker, reemerged, protective helmet removed, sweat sticking his brown hair to his pale forehead, approached Lt. Withers, sneezed, said, “Nothing but a pipe bomb. Simple, basic. Good we found it. It might have killed someone if he’d actually taken it on a train.”

“You defuse it?”

“Didn’t need to.” The bomb squad officer wiped his forehead with a dirty hanky, sucked on a water bottle. “Had no fuse. No big deal. I used to make pipe bombs myself when I was a teenager.” Sgt. Turker shook his head and looked as if he would spit, but didn’t. “They were living like animals, place was a sty. Trash and insects. One of my guys actually got stung by a hornet or something.” He gestured over his shoulder as the other two bomb squad officers emerged, carrying a black canvas bag containing the pipe bomb to their truck. “You can send your men in now. We killed the hornet.”

 

Years later—after a more deadly attack on the World Trade Center, after two US-led wars in Middle Eastern countries, after Americans finally realize what most of the rest of the world already knew, that “terrorism” was an action with real force, not just a quaint bugaboo Europeans frightened their children with—a former New York mayor will run for president. “Terrorism” will be a common word in US political stump speeches. Although the message is somewhat new, it’s delivery will actually be a twist on an old theme. Politicians have always known the rhetoric of fear.

One of the presidential contenders particularly adept at this line of persuasion is the former mayor of New York City. Let’s join him prior to a speech in front of a group of concerned North Eastern businessmen. His top aid has just passed him the recently composed speech he is about to deliver as they head into the auditorium rented for this event. The former mayor nods, moving his lips, murmuring to himself in his brisk, grumpy New York accent, occasionally shaking his head and pausing to scratch out a phrase or change a word, writing on the bent back of his aide. The delivery of this speech, nor even most of its text, concerns us here. Let’s skip down to this phrase about two-thirds of the way through:

 

…None of my opponents have had to deal with terrorism on a daily basis like I have. Even prior to 9/11, my police force foiled numerous terrorist attempts. For instance, in the summer of 1997, New York officers responded quickly to reports that a young Iraqi terrorist possessed a dirty bomb, they rushed to his apartment, bravely shooting him even as he lurched to detonate this explosive device…

 

The former Mayor nods at the above passage, waving the manuscript at his aid. “Good stuff.”